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Scientist John Marzluff Knows the Fears of the Crow

Corvid expert John Marzluff with a former grad student and current bird biologist at Yellowstone, Lauren Walker. Image by Andrius Pasukonis.
Corvid expert John Marzluff with bird biologist at Yellowstone, Lauren Walker. Image by Andrius Pasukonis.

Crows have long been feared by humans. A sign of bad luck to come, an omen of evil or even, death.

In medieval times, the bubonic plague was thought to be spread by the birds, and humans reacted to them with fear and loathing. In subsequent centuries and decades, humans have attempted to frighten crows and ravens from land with skulls and scarecrows -- and they have endeavored to shoot, bomb and poison them.

But in bird society, fear and weariness of humans are also common. And a bird’s terror of humans maps to their brain the same way fear maps to the human brain, says John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist and specialist on crow behavior at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“One of our most primitive emotions is fear and learning to fear things and respond appropriately to dangerous situations. And crows, of course, do that very well,” he says.

Like our bird cousins, our fear response happens in our amygdala, located deep within the temporal lobes of our brain, an area associated with emotional processes. And the sight of something that scares us activates a fight or flight response, preparing motor functions to either run for safety or to defend territory. And for a crow seeing a frightening human, scaring them away from the car, for example, their brains would light up the same way.

“Absolutely we’re having that same neural response to one another, which is interesting. I think it’s the way that we show our shared heritage, you know, even as many millions of years ago as it was,” Marzluff says.

This groundbreaking discovery about crows’ neural response was first published by Marzluff and his team in 2012. To test the theory that crows could remember the faces of those who would try to trap them, Marzluff and members of his lab would wear masks fashioned from the faces of friends and students, randomly assigning them to be “friendly” or “dangerous.”   Friendly masks were worn when feeding crows and tending their cages and the so-called dangerous masks were worn when capturing them. Shortly after being trapped, the birds would be temporarily put to sleep, and high-resolution PET-like images would be captured of their brains, kind of like an MRI does for humans. The researchers would then look for the synaptic activity of the brain cells, and how they differed after viewing humans wearing the different masks.

“With the crows and imaging, it surprised me that the part of the brain that reacted when they saw a dangerous person was the same as it would be in ours. I didn’t know that we’d be able to, you know, see that sort of response, but it was so clear and so consistent among individuals. As an ecologist that’s used to sloppy data, to see a physiological response so precise, I was kind of blown away, just that we could tap into that and learn it,” he says.

But like any good horror novel, there’s another plot twist. They also tested out another “dangerous” mask to see how the birds would respond. This troll-like, caveman mask was initially donned when they caught birds on campus in 2006 and they still use it to test the birds in the wild.

“It’s now 14 years that the birds continue to respond to us with the dangerous mask... it’s been ongoing and continues to this day with documenting the continued response and who’s involved,” Marzluff says, adding that one of two of the mated birds who had the personal interaction with the person wearing the caveman mask has now died. “So, it’ll be curious to see with him out of the picture how that response changes (from the female).”

For his part, Marzluff has continued to learn more about corvids, a group that includes ravens and magpies, as well as crows, and the uncanny ways they can mirror us, in a career spanning more than 40 years. He wrote a book about it too, “Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans.” Marzluff hopes that by continuing to share what humans and crows have in common, one day there might be a little more respect for the crows from the human side.

“These birds though are very, very keen at noting our actions. That they pay so much attention to people has been one of the most surprising things to me in my work with them,” he says. “To a crow, the human is the source of all good and evil really in their environment.”

That kind of reaction, he says, is really on display when a crow sees someone they have perceived as a threat or something else that scares them, like another dead crow. The crow will often caw loudly, trying to warn other crows. If it’s a threat, the crows may unite to scare their common enemy together. It’s less Hitchcock, and more collaboration, says Marzluff.

One aspect of crow behavior still remains elusive for Marzluff, their penchant for giving their human friends “gifts” of things they find interesting -- objects like small bones, lost earrings and dropped coins. One day, when he is no longer researching them directly, he hopes to form a friendship with a raven to see if he too could earn tokens of their friendship.

“That behavior really intrigues me, and it’s easy to read a lot into it, you know -- to humanize the animal, and there may be a lot of truth in that, but I’d like to be able to explore it a bit more,” he says.

In the meantime, other birds such as meadowlarks and the ravens of Yellowstone National Park have captured Marzluff’s attention. He also published his latest book in May, “In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land.” The book is Marzluff’s call to action for the protection of natural spaces and the adoption of sustainable farming practices. Even resilient birds like crows and ravens are at risk with climate change, he says, adding that they often wrongfully get the blame for trash and noise in our environments, but not consideration from us.

“They’re an easy scapegoat for our human activities,” Marzluff says of corvids. “I’d like to see us not immediately jump to the trigger and kill these animals, but rather reconsider what we’ve done to the environment and how we can fix that for the long haul.”

There are also steps the scientific community can take to preserve wild spaces. Marzluff lists the Farm Bill, signed into law in 2018, as one key opportunity for advocacy. Policymakers could consider adding direct subsidies and insurance subsidies beyond ethanol production such as growing natural habitat, which helps provide grassland for vulnerable, native bird species like meadowlarks and comes with funding that can also help struggling farmers.

“There are lots of things we know about conservation that the homeowner, the farmer, the policymaker can all put into play,” he says. “We need to be advocates for scientific knowledge, and I think that’s what I’m trying to do here is get the information out to the public and to my colleagues so that they can be that advocate.”

John Marzluff's latest book, "In Search of Meadowlarks."
John Marzluff's latest book, "In Search of Meadowlarks."


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